May 25, 2024

IWD: Paying homage to pioneering matriarchs of Nigerian literature

  • April 14, 2024
  • 13 min read
IWD: Paying homage to pioneering matriarchs of Nigerian literature

By Godwin Okondo

THERE’S no doubt that male writers always seem to hold the aces and for a long time too in Nigerian literary tradition almost to the exclusion of women. From Amos Tutuola to Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, JP Clark, Christopher Okigbo and latter-day writers, it’s been a male-dominated landscape. But that’s a fairly simplistic view to hold for the largely uninformed. The country’s literature has enjoyed quite a varied and variegated inclusivity as it possibly can, with women also holding their heads just as high. Female writers have also helped in shaping Nigeria’s literary narrative and have energise it to global acclaim. And as part of rounding off this year’s International Women’s Day (IWD) 2024, TheArtHubNg takes a look at Nigeria’s pioneering women writers and their place in Nigeria’s literary canon.

From earliest of times, female writers announced their arrival on the scene and have remained so and continue to give depth to Nigerian literature. This includes those who have passed on and those still alive, and the young female Turks plying their writerly trade in the scene although mostly living abroad now. But the true matriarchs have carved an enviable place for themselves and will continue to enrich Nigerian literature with their contributions to discourse on the canon.

Flora Nwapa (January 13, 1931 – October 16, 1993) has been called the mother of modern African literature. She was the forerunner to a generation of African women writers, and the first African woman novelist to be published in the English language in Britain. She achieved international recognition with her first novel Efuru, published in 1966 by Heinemann Educational Books. While never considering herself a feminist, she was best known for recreating life and traditions from an Igbo woman’s viewpoint. Nwapa followed Efuru with the novels Idu (1970), Never Again (1975), One is Enough (1981) and Women Are Different (1986). She published two collections of stories – This is Lagos (1971) and Wives at War (1980) – and the volume of poems, Cassava Song and Rice Song (1986). She is also the author of several books for children.

Mabel Segun (1930 – ) was among some of the pioneering students of then University College, Ibadan. Like their male counterparts – Achebe, Soyinka, Clark, Okigbo – she too took to writing and has written her name in gold. Segun devoted her time to children’s literature and made capital gains out of it. Segun was educated at University College, Ibadan, obtained a BA degree in English, Latin and History, and rose to become the Vice Principal of National Technical Teacher’s College, Yaba, Lagos, now (Yaba College of Technology). My Father’s Daughter was her first published book in 1965, followed by My Mother’s Daughter. As a champion of children’s literature, she founded Children’s Literature Association of Nigeria (CLAN) in 1978, and Children’s Documentation and Research Centre (CDRC) in 1990. She was a founding member of Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) alongside Chinua Achebe. As a broadcaster, she won Artist of the Year at the Nigerian Broadcaster Corporation award in 1977 and was decorated with the Nigerian National Order of Merit (NNOM) in 2015. Segun jointly won The Nigeria Prize for Literature with her children’s book, Readers’ Theatre: Twelve Plays for Young People in 2007.

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Flora Nwapa

Nwazuluwa Onuekwuke ‘Zulu’ Sofola (June 22, 1935 – September 5, 1995) was born in the former Bendel State in Issele-Uku, Aniocha, now in Delta State and attended Federal Government Primary School, Asaba, and Baptist Girls High School, Agbor. Due to her outstanding performance in school, she was awarded a scholarship to complete her high school education in Nashville, Tennessee. She studied at Southern Baptist Seminary, earned a BA in English at Virginia Union University in Richmond, Virginia in 1959. Sofola obtained her MA in Drama (play writing and production) from The Catholic University of America in Washington DC in 1965. She returned to Nigeria in 1966, and became a lecturer in the Department of Theatre Arts at the University of Ibadan, where she obtained a PhD in Theatre Arts (Tragic Theory) in 1977.

Her plays “range from historical tragedy to domestic comedy and use both traditional and modern African setting”, and uses “elements of magic, myth and ritual to examine conflicts between traditionalism and modernism in which male supremacy persists.” She is considered one of the most distinguished women in Nigerian literature, and remains a source of inspiration to young African writers. Sofola’s most frequently performed plays are Wedlock of the Gods (1972) and The Sweet Trap (1977.

Sofola’s other works include The Deer Hunter and The Hunter’s Pearl (1969), The Disturbed Peace of Christmas (1971), The Operators, King Emene: Tragedy of a Rebellion (1974), The Wizard of Law (1975), Old Wines Are Tasty (1981), Memories in the Moonlight (1986), Queen Omu-ako of Oligbo (1989), Eclipso and the Fantasia (1990, The Showers (1991), Song of a Maiden (1992) and Lost Dreams and Other Plays (1992). She died in 1995 at the age of 60.

Molara Ogundipe (December 27, 1940 – June 17, 2019) is known mostly for her poetry, literary criticism and activism, with a keen sense of feminism dominating her critical discourse. Ogundipe, like the men, also went the way of academics and taught in some prestigious universities across the world before she passed on. She is considered one of the foremost writers on African feminism, gender studies and literary theory. She was a social critic who came to be recognized as an authority on African women among black feminists and feminists in general. She contributed the piece “Not Spinning on the Axis of Maleness” to the 1984 anthology Sisterhood Is Global: The International Women’s Movement Anthology, edited by Robin Morgan.

Ogundipe is most celebrated for coining the term STIWA – Social Transformation in Africa Including Women, which seven principles include ‘resists Western feminism, gives specific attention to African women in this contemporary moment, brings to the forefront indigenous feminism that has also existed in Africa, believes in both inclusion and participation in the socio-political transformation of the African continent, contends with a woman’s body, personhood, nationhood, and society and how it operates within socio-economic hierarchies, is intentionally specific to the individual and collective identity (i.e. religion, class, and marital status) and recognizes that there are many factors and identities in Africa and individual personhoods operating in different and contradictory ways.”

Florence Onyebuchi ‘Buchi’ Emecheta (July 21, 1944 – January 25, 2017) was Nigerian-born but based in the UK from 1962, who also wrote plays as well as works for children. She was the author of more than 20 books, including Second Class Citizen (1974), The Bride Price (1976), The Slave Girl (1977) and The Joys of Motherhood (1979). Emecheta’s themes of child slavery, motherhood, female independence and freedom through education gained recognition from critics and honours. She once described her stories as “stories of the world, where women face the universal problems of poverty and oppression, and the longer they stay, no matter where they have come from originally, the more the problems become identical.” Her works explore the tension between tradition and modernity. She has been characterized as “the first successful black woman novelist living in Britain after 1948.

Among honours received during her literary career, Emecheta won the 1978 Jock Campbell Prize from the New Statesman (first won by Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God) for her novel The Slave Girl, and she was on Granta magazine’s 1983 list of 20 “Best of Young British Novelists”. She was a member of the British Home Secretary’s Advisory Council on Race in 1979. In September 2004, she appeared in the “A Great Day in London” photograph taken at the British Library, featuring 50 Black and Asian writers who have made major contributions to contemporary British literature. In 2005, she was made an Officer of British Empire (OBE) for services to literature. She received an Honorary doctorate of literature from Farleigh Dickinson University in 1992.

Ifeoma Okoye has been referred to by fans as “the most important female novelist from Nigeria after Flora Nwapa and Buchi Emecheta,” according to Ryan Professor of African Literature and Coordinator of African-American and African Studies at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, US, Oyekan Owomoyela. She was born in Anambra State and attended St. Monica’s College in Ogbunike and received a teaching certificate in 1959. She then graduated from the University of Nigeria in Nsukka to earn a Bachelor of Arts honours degree in English in 1977. She also studied at Aston University in England, where she obtained a postgraduate degree in English. Later, she taught English at Nnamdi Azikiwe University until 2000. Her novels include Behind the Clouds, children’s novels and short stories, such as The Village Boy and Eme Goes to School.

Although Okoye is known for her children’s short stories, she also wrote important books for adults, such as Behind the Clouds, which is about a couple who fails to have children, and how the blame mainly falls on the woman instead of the man. Okoye received prizes for both Behind the Cloud and The Village Boy from the Nigerian National Council of Art and Culture in 1983, along with earning the best fiction of the year award for her novel Men Without Ears in 1984. In 1985, she received another award for Daily Bread after Eze at the Ife National Book Fair. She was also the African Regional Winner for the Commonwealth Short Story competition in 1999.

Zainab Alkali was born into the Tura-Mazila family of Borno and Adamawa States. For secondary education, she attended Queen Elizabeth Secondary School, Ilorin, and went on to obtain both her first and second degrees from Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria and BUK, Kano. At Bayero University Kano (BUK), she studied English to a doctorate level.

The Stillborn, perhaps Zaynab Alkali’s best-known work, was published to critical acclaim in 1984. This coming-of-age novel depicts the physical and spiritual journey of a Nigerian woman who learns to survive in the face of harsh traditions. The novel was quickly followed by The Virtuous Woman which was published by Longman, Nigeria in 1987. Like many talented writers of prose, Alkali decided to try her hands on short prose form. Cobwebs & Other Stories was published by the famous Malthouse Press in Lagos in 1997. The Descendants was published by Spectrum Lagos 2007 and followed by The Initiates in 2007 and Invisible Borders in 2016. Alkali’s books have been translated into many languages such as German, French, Arabic and Spanish. To date, Alkali has won over 40 awards.

She was awarded the title of Icon of Hope (2000) by President Olusegun Obasanjo’s government. She received the Nigerian Woman of Distinction Award ( 29 September 2010) on the occasion of Nigeria’s Golden Jubilee, presented by President Goodluck Jonathan. The Adamawa State Governor, Murtala Nyako, bestowed on her the Woman of Substance Merit Award on October 2, 2011. She was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award for her contributions to the Nigeria Literary Canon by Nasir El-Rufai at the Kaduna Book and Arts Festival (KABAFEST) on September 5, 2018.

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Mabel Segun

Osonye Tess Onwueme, also known as T. Akaeke Onwueme (September 8, 1955 -), is a Nigerian playwright, scholar and poet, who rose to prominence writing plays with themes of social justice, culture, and the environment. She attended the University of Ife, for her bachelor’s degree in education (1979) and master’s in literature (1982). She obtained her PhD at the University of Benin, studying African Drama. In 2010, she became the university Professor of Global Letters, following her exceptional service as Distinguished Professor of Cultural Diversity and English at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire, US. Through her plays, she is able to use the theatre as a medium to showcase historically silenced views such as African women, and shedding more light on African life. She sustains her advocacy for the global poor and youth, along with the experiences and concerns of the African Diaspora in her creative work. In 2007, the U.S. State Department appointed her to the Public Diplomacy Speaker Program for North, East, and West India. The 2009 Tess International Conference: Staging Women, Youth, Globalization, and Eco-Literature, which was exclusively devoted to her work, was successfully held by international scholars in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, following the Fonlon-Nichols award to the dramatist. She also is an active speaker regarding domestic violence.

She has won several international awards, including the prestigious Fonlon-Nichols award (2009, the Phyllis Wheatley/Nwapa award for outstanding black writers (2008), the Martin Luther King, Jr./Caesar Chavez Distinguished Writers Award (1989/90), the Distinguished Authors Award (1988), and the Association of Nigerian Authors Drama Prize, which she has won several times with plays such as The Desert Encroaches (1985), Tell It To Women (1995), Shakara: Dance-Hall Queen (2001), Then She Said It (2003), among numerous honors and international productions of her drama.

Onwueme’s works include A Hen Too Soon (1983), Broken Calabash (1984), The Reign of Wazobia (1988), Ban Empty Barn and Other Plays (1986), Legacies (1989), Three Plays: an anthology of plays by Tess Onwueme (1993) and Riot In Heaven: drama for the voices of Color (1996; 2006). Others are The Missing Face, a play (1997; 2000), What Mama Said, an epic drama (2004) and No Vacancy (2005).

Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo is a Nigerian author and educator, whose published works include novels, poetry, short stories, books for children, essays and journalism. She is the winner of several awards in Nigeria, including winning The Nigeria Prize for Literature in 2007. She won the prestigious international Fonlon-Nichols Award in 2021 and the International Haiku Prize sponsored by the International Forum for Literature and Culture of Peace (IFLAC) and Research Fellowship Awards in the UK, South Africa and Germany. Visiting Research Fellowship at Royal Holloway, University of London, UK, in 2007, the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, British Council Fellow at the University of Cambridge, UK, in 1998, Special Guest of the Centre for African Studies, University of Edinburgh, Scotland, at a Literary Retreat at the Burn in Scotland in 1998. Her short story ‘The President’s Change Agent’ won the African Literature Association (ALA) US, for Best Short Story Award in May 2020. Her children’s novel Fire from the Holy Mountain won the ANA/Atiku Abubakar Children’s Literature Prize – 2008, just as her Heart Songs (poetry collection) won the ANA/Cadbury Poetry Prize in 2009.

Adimora-Ezeigb0 obtained her Bachelor of Arts (BA) and Masters (MA) degrees in English from the University of Lagos and her Ph.D. from University of Ibadan, and a Postgraduate Diploma in Education (PGDE) from University of Lagos. A lecturer, writer, novelist, critic, essayist, journalist, and administrator, Adimora-Ezeigbo was appointed a professor of English at University of Lagos in 1999, having taught in the Department of English since 1981. In September 2015, she relocated to Federal University, Ndufu-Alike, Ikwo, Ebonyi State, where she has continued to teach students and mentor younger lecturers. Adimora-Ezeigbo developed the hugely applauded Snail-sense Feminism theory that emphasizes effective dialogue, negotiation, and the acquisition of good education as strategies for African women’s emancipation and self-development. It takes inspiration from the snail’s ability to navigate obstacles by using its “well-lubricated tongue”.

She has a prodigious body of works, which include Magic Breast Bags, Do Not Burn My Bones & Other Stories and two children’s novels – Sika of Iroko Clan and Bode the Brave Boy. In 2022 she came out with three works: the London edition of A Million Bullets and a Rose (formerly titled Roses and Bullets) and Broken Bodies, Damaged Souls and Other Poems. Her earliest works that stood her out as a writer of immense promise areThe Last of the Strong Ones (novel – 1981), House of Symbols (novel – 2001) and Children of the Eagle (novel – 2002). Others include Rhythms of Life (short stories – 1992), Echoes in the Mind (short stories – (1996), Rituals & Departures (short stories – (1996), Trafficked (novel – 2008) and Heart Songs (poems – 2009), among others.

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